Strass v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, 96-CV-1122.

Citation744 A.2d 1000
Case DateJanuary 20, 2000
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

744 A.2d 1000

Stephanie A. STRASS, Appellant,

No. 96-CV-1122.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued March 24, 1998.

Decided January 20, 2000.

744 A.2d 1002
James H. Heller, with whom Tracy L. Hilmer, Washington, DC, was on the brief, for appellant

744 A.2d 1003
Paul C. Skelly, with whom Weatherly Lowe Bentley, Washington, DC, was on the brief, for appellee

Before WAGNER, Chief Judge, and SCHWELB and REID, Associate Judges.

WAGNER, Chief Judge.

This case involves claims of breach of contract and wrongful termination of employment under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C.Code ? 1-2512(a)(1) (1992) (Human Rights Act or the Act), which prohibits an employer from discharging an employee for discriminatory reasons, including physical handicap. After being terminated from her employment, appellant, Stephanie Strass, sued her former employer, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, Inc. (Kaiser), alleging that her employment had been terminated because of her physical handicap, hypertension, in violation of the Human Rights Act and contract of employment. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Strass in the total amount of $525,047.00. The trial court set aside the verdict and granted judgment as a matter of law to Kaiser on both the breach of contract claim and violation of the Human Rights Act. The trial court concluded that Strass failed to prove that her physical condition could be accommodated reasonably. On the breach of contract claim, the court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to permit a jury to conclude that there was an express or implied agreement between Kaiser and Strass. Strass argues on appeal that the evidence and the law support the jury's verdict on both her theories of liability. We agree and reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Factual Background

In April 1988, Kaiser hired Strass as its Director of Public Affairs. Her job responsibilities included various public relations functions, such as writing publications for members, community relations, media relations, and special events. In addition, Strass was responsible for handling questions arising in the course of Kaiser's dealings with the public. At the beginning of her employment with Kaiser, in addition to Strass, her department had two public affairs representatives, a secretary and one on-call person who worked one day per week. By the late fall of 1990, Strass' department had decreased by two, leaving the Public Relations Department with only one other full-time professional in the Washington office.1

In the late summer of 1991, Strass began experiencing headaches, fatigue, an inability to relax, and insomnia. Strass attributed her symptoms to pressures associated with working with a short staff and preparation for Kaiser's annual board of directors' meeting scheduled to be held in November 1991. On August 15, 1991, Strass reported her symptoms to Dr. Seonae Pak. After several visits in which Strass' blood pressure readings were elevated, Dr. Pak diagnosed Strass as having hypertension, which he attributed to her work situation.2

Dr. Maron testified that Strass' blood pressure was normal from 1977 to August 1991. However, from August 1991 until February 1992, "[a] period of time in which [Strass] was surrounded by employment stresses," Strass' blood pressure was abnormal. Dr. Maron further testified that Strass' abnormal blood pressure reading continued about 46% of the time, through June 1994, two years after Strass' termination from Kaiser. Dr. Maron testified that Strass' hypertension was caused by "an unusual and extraordinary stressful situation related to her employment at

744 A.2d 1004
Kaiser." He also testified that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, if the particular stress situation had been eliminated, her blood pressure would have returned to normal. He also testified that removal of the stress and addressing the condition without medication was the preferable course of action

In early October 1991, Strass informed her supervisor, Robin Thomashauer, that she had been diagnosed with hypertension and that the stress of preparing for the board meeting with inadequate staff was making her ill. Thomashauer said that Strass' condition and the job situation was not "a good fit." About a week later, Strass went to see Rick Snocker, Kaiser's manager of human resources, seeking a solution to the situation. Snocker suggested during this meeting that Strass' medical condition might qualify for reasonable accommodation. Strass then visited Gary Fernandez, Thomashauer's boss, seeking reasonable accommodation for her illness. Strass suggested restructuring her job, filling the staff vacancies in her office, or transferring her to another position within the organization.

In January 1992, Strass expressed an interest to Thomashauer in a newly created position of Director of Community Relations. In spite of Strass' background in community relations, she was not offered the position. At trial, Thomashauer testified that the position was not given to Strass because it was believed that Strass' bitterness towards the company would inhibit her from effectively representing Kaiser in the community.

In early February 1992, Strass met with Thomashauer and Snocker, and they asked her to consider the Compass Career Reappraisal Program, a program designed to assess the suitability of an employee for his or her current job or another position within Kaiser. On February 18, 1992, Strass conditionally declined the offer for enrollment in the program, stating in writing the following reasons for her decision:

In view of the fact that Kaiser Permanente will not assure me: (1) that my right to privacy will be protected; (2) that the information obtained will be treated as confidential; (3) that the information obtained will not be used to my detriment, I decline to enroll in the Compass Career Reappraisal Program unless my enrollment is required as a condition to remaining employed at Kaiser Permanente.

That same day, Thomashauer gave Strass a memorandum terminating her employment with Kaiser.3 A memo dated the same date was placed in Strass' personnel file indicating that her negative attitude was a factor in her inability to carry out her job responsibilities effectively.

At the time of Strass' termination, Kaiser had a progressive discipline policy in effect. This policy, Section 8.03 of the Personnel Policy Manual, provided for specific steps to be followed prior to termination of employment with Kaiser. There was a disclaimer in the introduction of the Personnel Policy Manual indicating that it was not a contract. However, other language in the document used mandatory terms in setting forth various conditions of employment, including, e.g., vacation, severance pay, health and safety conditions. There was also a declaration that the manual was Kaiser's statement of intention in matters covered by the policy.

II. Analysis

A. Standard of Review

"A judgment notwithstanding the verdict is proper only in extreme cases,

744 A.2d 1005
where `no reasonable person, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, could reach a verdict in favor of that party.'" Lyons v. Barrazotto, 667 A.2d 314, 320 (D.C.1995) (quoting Oxendine v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 506 A.2d 1100, 1103 (D.C.1986), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1074, 110 S.Ct. 1121, 107 L.Ed.2d 1028 (1990) (citations omitted)). If there is some evidence from which the jury could find for a party on the required elements of the claim, or where the resolution of the case requires the resolution of factual issues or a determination of the credibility of witnesses, the case should be submitted to the jury. Id. at 320 (citing Washington Welfare Ass'n, Inc. v. Poindexter, 479 A.2d 313, 315 (D.C.1984)) (other citation omitted). Where the trial court grants a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law, this court applies the same standard of review on appeal. Id. (citation omitted).

B. Claim Under the Human Rights Act

In setting aside the verdict for Strass, the trial court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that Kaiser unlawfully terminated Strass in violation of the Human Rights Act. Specifically, the trial court determined that no reasonable juror could conclude on the evidence presented that Strass was a handicapped person within the meaning of the Act because she had failed to establish that a reasonable accommodation could be made for her claimed disability. Strass argues that the trial court erred in vacating the jury's finding that Kaiser failed to accommodate her physical handicap in violation of the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act "prohibits an employer from discharging an employee based wholly or partially upon discriminatory reasons, including physical handicap." D.C.Code ? 1-2512(a)(1)4; American Univ. v. Commission on Human Rights, 598 A.2d 416, 421 (D.C.1991) (citing D.C.Code ? 1-2512(a)(1) (1987)). To establish a prima facie case of discrimination based upon handicap, a claimant is required to prove that

"(a) except for his [or her] physical handicap, he [or she] is qualified to fill the position; (b) he [or she] has a handicap that prevents him from meeting the physical criteria for employment; and (c) the challenged physical standards have a disproportionate impact on persons having the same handicap from which he [or she] suffers. To sustain this prima facie case, there should also be a facial showing or at least plausible reasons to believe that the handicap can be accommodated or that the physical criteria are not `job related.'"

American Univ., 598 A.2d at 422 (quoting Prewitt v. United States Postal Serv., 662 F.2d 292, 309-10 (5th Cir.1981)). Special interrogatories were submitted to the jury in this case covering each...

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